- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2007

Viktor Kozlov had the puck and moved toward the middle of the ice, drawing both defensive players to him.

It was a short, simple pass — he just left the puck behind him in the area where he came from, and Alex Ovechkin swooped in to collect it and then rifled a wrist shot past Carolina goaltender John Grahame.

Photo Gallery: Capitals face off against Hurricanes

“That’s the best lane exchange I’ve seen in this building for a few years,” Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon said after the Caps” 2-0 win against Carolina on Saturday night. “They really seem like they enjoy playing with each other.”

Hanlon and the Caps hoped that pairing the organization’s superstar with a veteran free agent acquisition would help Ovechkin take another step forward in his third year in the league. Most people in the hockey community assumed that free agent center would be Michael Nylander, who previously paired with Jaromir Jagr in New York and Washington.

Instead Hanlon turned to Kozlov, a 32-year-old Russian who played on a line with Ovechkin in the 2004 Olympics and has alternated between center and right wing in his career. The early returns have met and maybe even exceeded expectations.

Both players have a goal and an assist in the Caps’ two victories to open the season, and their line (including Tomas Fleischmann or Chris Clark) has been a dominant unit in both games, consistently holding the puck in the offensive zone and creating scoring chances.

“Obviously, having a guy that is as calming as Kozlov is and can hold the puck as he does and can find Ovie in the open, it is great,” Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “It’s a great combination.”

Added Ovechkin: “Mostly it is about Viktor. He controls the game. He is the head of our line, and [Fleischmann] and I just concentrate on our game. If he has puck, we just try to find open space, and he makes good pass.”

Hanlon named Ovechkin one the team’s assistant captains, which wasn’t a surprise because he wore an “A” at the end of last season. Kozlov has been listed as the other assistant captain in each of the first two games, but he hasn’t had an “A” on his uniform. He actually didn’t even know it when asked about it yesterday after practice.

The reason, according to Hanlon, is that Brian Sutherby is still an assistant captain but has not dressed for either of the games. Hanlon listed Kozlov as one on the roster because the team would need a spokesman if Clark and Ovechkin are not on the ice.

“I was fortunate enough to have Igor Larionov in Vancouver when I was an assistant coach. He was a real classy person, and Viktor is cut from the same cloth,” Hanlon said. “It is my way of sort of appreciating his work and dedication in his short period of time here. He just seems like a natural leader to me.”

Ovechkin is also doing his part to earn the distinction. Hanlon lauded his all-around effort in the season opener at Atlanta, and the 22-year old Russian played another defensively responsible game at Verizon Center against the Hurricanes.

He dropped to block a shot from Carolina’s Eric Staal in the game’s waning seconds to help preserve Kolzig’s shutout. The fact he was even on the ice represented a new facet of Ovechkin’s game — Hanlon is now confident enough in his defensive ability to call on him to help protect a late lead.

“The last two years I get the puck and go to the zone and shoot,” Ovechkin said. “Last two games I try combination game with Viktor and [Fleischmann], and I think we did great job. In defensive zone I just try to take my D-man and go to spot where I have to stay, and I think it is working.”

Added Kolzig: “He’s committed at both ends of the ice. We’ve talked about it. If he’s committed at doing that, then the sky is the limit for this hockey team.”

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